Local election campaigns will begin heating up soon. Primary elections take place in a small handful of suburbs Tuesday, and after that only six weeks will remain until general elections throughout the suburbs on April 9.
A variety of local offices will be on the ballot. There will be municipal and township races and contests for school, park, library and fire protection district boards in addition to referendums.
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Inevitably, in many municipal races, business development will be a campaign issue. It always is. And in particular this year, vacant storefronts in many cases will be a focal point.
No question, vacant storefronts make for a legitimate issue. In almost all cases, they're not good for a community and something ought to be done to try to repopulate them.
But in gauging that issue, it's worth remembering that we're just inching out of the worst recession in our lifetimes. Regrettably, there are going to be some empty storefronts. Almost no business district operates these days without them.
The store vacancy rate still is a real concern, but that perspective is vital in assessing the depth of it.
Voters and responsible candidates should focus less on the intuitive response to how vacancy storefronts feel and more on how the vacancy rate in town compares to vacancy rates in neighboring towns.
Perhaps more importantly, sophisticated voters need to thoughtfully analyze the plans to do something about those empty stores.
Frankly, a candidate who promises to make business development a priority without much in the way of specifics falls short of the standard a voter should set.
Ask how a candidate plans to fill those stores if elected. If the answer is little more than increasing the networking to reach out to potential store tenants, well, that's not good enough.
The approach needs to be much broader and more multifaceted than that.
A good test voters should apply on this issue are some simple questions: How strong is the candidate's vision for the retail and business niche the community fills or could fill? Does the candidate have a fundamental understanding of what the community offers, why some kinds of retailers might be attracted and others would not? And how concrete is the candidate's plan for marketing that niche?
Meanwhile, the tough economic times should underscore the success stories -- the amazing job Arlington Heights did, for instance, to fill the Arlington Theater after it closed. Or the proactive initiative Hoffman Estates showed to make sure it didn't lose the Sears headquarters and all the jobs that went with it. Gurnee's ability to draw Macy's to Gurnee Mills. Prospect Heights' creativity in attracting two grocery stores. And the news last week that Rolling Meadows has found a supermarket to fill a major part of the long-shuttered Dominick's, and Streamwood's ability to attract Fresh Express and its 700 jobs.
Those are not easy acquisitions in good times.
That they're accomplished in tough times is all the more compelling an argument that empty storefronts tell only part of the story, and both voters and candidates need to delve deeper in getting at the full version.